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A photo of Stephen Reichenbach with his dog in Vietnam.

Marine dog handler Steve Reichenbach with his dog, Major, on a patrol north of Danang in late 1966.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF STEPHEN K. REICHENBACH

Rebecca Frankel

for National Geographic

Published May 19, 2014

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a five-part series.

It was a beautiful day. Twenty-two-year-old Marine Sergeant Steve Reichenbach was working his way up a hill, his scout dog Major moving along beside him.

In fact, he wasn't supposed to go out on another mission. It was supposed to be his last day in Vietnam, his last day with Major. The replacement handlers were already in country, ready to pick up the leashes as soon as Reichenbach and his fellow handlers left Vietnam to make their way back home. But when the request came in for a dog team to go out with a group of Marines on a patrol mission, Reichenbach said he'd go—to work once more with Major.

War dogs promo.

At 90 pounds, Major—a Great Dane-Shepherd mix with a creamy off-white coat—had an intimidating presence. After they first started running missions together, Reichenbach began to notice that once the enemy saw his dog coming, they would start tripping their ambushes early. Major's size alone was enough to scare them off.

Unlike most of the other Marine dog handlers who had been sent to Vietnam in 1966, Reichenbach hadn't trained with Major before deploying. Instead he had been paired up with the dog once he arrived in country. The handler Major had come with to Vietnam had been killed a few weeks before Reichenbach arrived. But despite the fact they were paired out of convenience, Reichenbach and Major meshed from their first meeting.

The young man and this dog had similar temperaments: They were both mellow, relaxed, even-keeled types who didn't waste much energy getting excited about much of anything. A quiet dog, Major never barked, never growled. He was never ruffled by the noise of the fighting around him. Reichenbach never saw Major out of sorts, except for the time they came across a cat—a kitten that weighed no more than three pounds. But as soon as Major caught wind of this little creature, he went crazy, moving so fast to chase the cat he nearly jerked his handler to the ground.

Watch: War Dogs in Vietnam

On their last day together, they marched along up the hill, which was mostly bare, offering no brush or trees for cover. After a while, one of the Marines in the company stepped into a booby trap—a deep pit lined with sharp spears—and one of the spears went through his boot and into his foot. While the medic was attending to the wounded man, Reichenbach turned around to walk away with Major and was hit with a bad feeling—suddenly he just knew that something wasn't right.

And then a mine exploded. A tail of shrapnel sprayed out behind it, catching six of the men and killing four of them. Reichenbach was hit in his upper right leg and left hip, his wounds bleeding freely.

And then, the dog that never growled, that was never put off by the sound of snapping gunfire or artillery shells, planted himself at Reichenbach's side and bared his teeth. Major would not let anyone come near his handler.

The other men, working fast to get Reichenbach medical attention, finally got a muzzle on the dog. The company commander, Captain Walter Boomer, hoisted the large dog up and put him on the chopper, right on top of Reichenbach. As the chopper descended back at the base, the first thing the waiting medics saw was a big white dog bearing down on them.

It was the last time Reichenbach would see Major. The handler spent the next three months recuperating in a series of different military hospitals before finally returning home to the United States. Meanwhile, Major was immediately paired up with the replacement handler. And, as one of Reichenbach's fellow Marines would tell him later, when this new handler went to meet his new dog, Major was still covered in Reichenbach's blood.

A photo of Stephen Reichenbach and his dog in Vietnam.
Reichenbach was paired with Major, a Great Dane-Shepherd mix, when he arrived in Vietnam, soon after the dog's first handler was killed.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF STEPHEN K. REICHENBACH

Reichenbach never had another dog. After the war ended, he didn't try to track down Major the way that some handlers did, sending inquiries after their dogs, hoping to adopt them (all unsuccessfully). Someone sent him an email once, saying they'd found a record noting that Major died of a jungle disease that had been killing off their dogs. But even if Major was still alive by the time the United States forces pulled out of Vietnam, he, like all but a few of the dogs still in country, would have been left behind.

And many of these military dogs met with an unhappy end—likely euthanized by the South Vietnamese Army, with whom they were left, or worse. Many of the handlers didn't find out for years that their canine partners never made it out of Vietnam alive.

This is one of the darkest parts of war dog history, especially considering how valuable they were to U.S. troops. Roughly 4,000 dogs served in the war, leading patrols with their handlers through dense jungle terrain. Overall, they are credited with saving upward of 10,000 lives.

After he got out of the Marine Corps, Reichenbach never had another dog, but he still thinks of Major. Whenever some website asks for the name of his first pet as a security question, Reichenbach always lists Major, even though he wasn't really his first dog or really a pet. He was something more.

"He was a good puppy," he says. "He deserved better than he got. But," he pauses, thinking for a moment, "it was a useful life."

Coming tomorrow: Smoky, the Healing Dog

Read part one, part two, and part three.

Rebecca Frankel is a senior editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Her book, War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love, will be released in October.

37 comments
Ramini Titanium
Ramini Titanium

Dog's a man's best friend.??? I feel ashame... I salute to you brave soldier "k9s".

Dennis Martinez
Dennis Martinez

Sending dogs to war is wrong, it's bad enough that we send our kids to die for the companies that run this country. Leave the dogs alone!!


kathi wagner
kathi wagner

I keep reading about new studies that show dogs and humans' brains work in much the same way. Dogs think like we do. Dogs watch us. Point at something and your dog gets what you're doing. (Chimpanzees don't watch where people point). Dogs are charitable and fair when they play together. Maybe we can quit this war and killing stuff because it's not good for any living things.

Barbara Cullom
Barbara Cullom

This makes me feel really sad.  We humans mostly outlive our canine and feline companions, but the unfinished story of Major leaves questions about his end.  I hate war.   Always have, always will.  But at least in the current Middle East situation some of the dogs get to come to the U.S. and stay with their people. Thank you to the trainers, handlers, friends of companions of such furry service members.

Gary Warner
Gary Warner

Dogs in war or customs police deserve more they have unconditional love not like us humans the quicker we understand this the better go doggys u rule you deserve all u can get

Anny Seavey
Anny Seavey

Why would the military leave behind these dogs ??  discard them to be eaten or killed ???...why any of these men would have kept them or given them to fallen soldiers families . They surely would have been happily absorbed back in the US instead of thrown away like trash. They were living things and not a stupid tank to car . they had intelligence, and bravery, and blind obedience to the person they trusted. -- Put their names on the wall and put the persons name who  decided not to bring them back put his name there too but upside down! so we can always know the name of the sub human who had that great idea. !

Randy Ritter
Randy Ritter

Absolutely should be on the wall.iss you still, King (AO38).


Ray M.
Ray M.

As a Vietnam vet, I agree with Fred, put their names on the wall.

Fred Hilger
Fred Hilger

These dogs were soldiers like their human partners.


Sure nobody would have left human soldiers behind to face certain death on hostile ground.


They deserved better. Nobody gave them a choice to fight or not for human interests.


No questions asked, just blind obedience: weren't they perfect soldier?


So put their names on "the wall", they deserved it!


Alan Choo
Alan Choo

American military are such a**holes to leave the canines behind! If it weren't for the dogs saving the men in combat!! More would have been killed!! Heartless A**holes!!

Kris
Kris

Given a chance these Dogs wouldn't have given up on us this way! I am Sure about that.

mark perez
mark perez

I friend bought his dog back.....they partners to the end....


Linda D.
Linda D.

So sad these "heroes" were left behind.

David Strouth
David Strouth

Sorry to wonder if we've evolved since those horrible days...

Franklin Lee
Franklin Lee

Is an unconscious acts of war one that you dream of?

CLINTON A.
CLINTON A.

Another disgusting example showing there is little glory in war.

Franklin Lee
Franklin Lee

So many human lives lost. It was good to have this option to save human lives. It would have been nice of they would have brought the dogs back.

tao observer
tao observer

Depressing that our "great" country could do such a thing.  They were treated as commodities.  Dogs and other animals should be left out of our unconscious acts of war anyway.  We have no business dragging them into such things.

Linda Ward Kirkendale
Linda Ward Kirkendale

Can't stand to read that.  It's like leaving a soldier behind.  The most depressing thing I've read in a long time.


Christie Ley
Christie Ley

These dogs were used and left behind to die. Shameful.

Trinka Briggs
Trinka Briggs

Wow, that was a tough one to read.  Just like the treatment veterans receive from a government that asks them to fight and then refuses to take care of them aftewards. Harsh, and very, very wrong!    How some of the handlers never even bothered to find out what happened to their dog though makes me angry.  They definitely deserved better.

Christopher Caporal
Christopher Caporal

We should never forget our fellow K9 Soldiers, Marines, Airmen or Sailors. You never leave anyone behind...  ever.

C. Valles
C. Valles

@Anny Seavey  The military can be like that. Just look at how many vets are homeless, how many have untreated PTSD. Sure, some get jobs, college education, a life... But not every military personel gets what they deserve. Specially those who can't and won't protest.

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